Dmitri Shostakovich - The Nose
Royal Opera House, London - 2016
Barrie Kosky, Ingo Metzmacher, Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, Rosie Aldridge, Alexander Kravets, Alexander Lewis, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Peter Bronder,Helene Schneiderman, Susan Bickley, Ailish Tynan, Jeremy White
Opera Platform - 9th November 2016
Outrageous. I think that's the key word to aim for in a production of Shostakovich's The Nose. Gogol's wonderfully absurd and satirical comedy is given a musically extravagant treatment by Dmitri Shostakovich and it calls out for an outrageously surreal comic response on the stage. I'm surprised that Terry Gilliam hasn't been ear-marked for this one at some stage, but The Met's recent production at least found an appropriate illustrator's flourish in William Kentridge. If it's outrageous you're looking for however, Barrie Kosky is your man.
In Gogol's story and Shostakovich's opera, the nose of interest is that of the Collegiate Assessor Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev. Somehow it disappears from his face, is found in the bread mix of the barber's wife and then goes off to have an independent life of its own, much to the consternation of Kovalev. Even worse, it seems to be having a better life than him, being seen in all the important places around the city and even making the rank of State Councillor. Kovalev meanwhile finds that the absence of a nose don't confer much credibility on him with anyone, not with the police or the newspapers when he tries to report it missing, and it pretty much kills any prospects of marriage he might have had.
Kosky delivers an energetic staging that matches Shostakovich's musically eclectic score for The Nose, even adding a tap dancing routine to a score folk and jazzy rhythms, oomph-pah trombones and tuba and even a balalaika ballad, the music alternating between moments of dark reflection, comic verve and symphonic interludes. It's a technical challenge to find the right mood for each scene, particularly as the work is played straight through without an interval and with minimal time for scene changes, but Kosky and his design team come up with some inventive solutions that don't compromise on the director's individual sense of style and his tableau arrangements.
Barrie Kosky doesn't do obvious, but he has some familiar tics and tricks that are starting to become quite predictable. There is some of the director's trademark campness thrown into the Royal Opera House's all-singing all-dancing production, with gratuitous male dancers in corsets and suspenders, but primarily what you get in a Barrie Kosky production of the Nose is an appropriate sense of irreverence. And noses evidently. Lots of noses. It's not just Kovalov's nose that is prominent here, there are noses everywhere you look - which is kind of obvious. As obvious as... well, you know what.
Well, maybe not so obvious, since there is a rather large dose of comic absurdity and satire in The Nose, and any attempt to look for deep meaning in it is doomed to appear rather silly. Kosky gets the comic absurdity, but doesn't really do the satire. But then, Gogol's satire was very much to do with certain peculiarities of Russian society, with its system of rank and position, with power and authority, with corruption and bribery. There is a pre-Kafkaesque edge to it, but that's not what Shostakovich goes for, and neither does Barrie Kosky.
So what does Kosky find in this Royal Opera House production of The Nose? You might not be surprised to find that Kosky picks up on the undercurrents of a castration complex that Kovalev undergoes in his emasculation. Without his nose, Kovalov no longer feels like a man, he is unable to pursue women, and marriage to the daughter of Pelageya Podtotschina Grigorievna is out of the question (although he was always ambivalent about this match in the first place). Evidently you would expect Kosky to make a big deal of this, and literally at one stage he does indeed make a 'big thing' out of the nose.
So it's typically Kosky, a little bit camp, a little bit vulgar (David Poutney's funny English translation keeping it nice and sweary as well), but it's also clever, entertaining and fun. There's some inventive use of tables and desks driven on wheels to keep things moving along. The production is funny in some places and kind of laboured dead air in others, but it's that kind of a hit and miss opera. Summing up the whole enterprise however, an observer comes on to the stage and gets the audience laughing at the idea that anyone would make an opera out of this "sorry little tale"; "It's of no use to any of us". So there's no point in, ahem, looking down your nose at it.
Singing The Nose in English is perhaps a necessity unless you have a large cast of Russian singers ready to take on the 78 singing and speaking parts (outside of Russia, I would think that only the Bayerische Staatsoper have that kind of resource to draw on). English works just fine, particularly in Poutney's good translation, and we get good singing and speak-singing performances from Martin Winkler as Kovalev and John Tomlinson in a variety of colourful roles that he assumes brilliantly. Alexander Kravets's District Inspector is terrific, and Susan Bickley and Ailish Tynan enter into the spirit of the whole thing wonderfully. I'm not at all familiar with the music, but Ingo Metzmacher's conducting of the orchestra certainly holds together all the varied rhythms, moods and peculiarities of the piece.
Links: Royal Opera House, Opera Platform